With a Wrench and a Cowbell: How Sterling Chase Worked His Way Into Pit Crewing02/25/2022
Being a race car mechanic is to possess a skillset few can profess, and the experience to do so for the highest bidder is even rarer. A wrench-for-hire, though, is but one of multiple, unique hats Sterling Chase perches atop his silver-streaked Afro. You can also call him a Volkswagen expert extraordinaire and—unofficially—the Pikes Peak cowbell hype man. Before the green flag drops at the world’s most extreme hill climb race, Chase’s is often the last smile many racers see.
But while the journey from grandstand to pit lane looks like a matter of feet, it’s a divide that Chase found took years to cross. He had to forge a path himself, and now that he has, he hopes to light the way for younger generations of car and motorsport fans to follow.
Sterling Chase wills on a driver at High Plains Raceway in Colorado
The Desire To Be Unique
Like many car enthusiasts, the seeds of Chase’s interest were sown early in life by watching his father go four-wheeling and work on his 1979 Chevy LUV. Issues of Super Street watered these seeds, which germinated and flourished by the light of Colin McRae and Richard Burns butting heads on Speedvision. These instilled in him the desire to become a rally driver, and being a good rally driver to Chase meant technical literacy—knowing how to set the car up, and fix it if need be.
So, rather than computer science, Chase attended Universal Technical Institute, where hazing rituals not uncommon in automotive service programs unfortunately gave him second thoughts. He left UTI to sell cars for a period, during which The Fast and the Furious dropped. It both rekindled his interest in wrenching and ignited an entirely new one for VWs—not the in-vogue Hondas, Mitsubishis, and Toyotas of the day.
“I was like, ‘I want to be something unique and original,'” Chase told The Drive. “I was just like, ‘Volkswagen is kind of cool because I took German in high school for like three years.’ I [thought] that would probably be a good fit.”
Before long, Chase was back to wrenching, this time at a Firestone store, where he picked up hands-on experience with racing essentials, like performing alignments and replacing brakes. He returned to UTI, graduated, and was accepted to the Volkswagen Academy in Rancho Cucamonga, California, which sharpened his skills and landed him a job in the VW service network. But while he’d gathered the skills he’d sought as his ticket to go racing, he had no place to ply them, in part because there wasn’t any obvious racing scene where he lived in Colorado.
Sterling Chase fixing a customer’s VW Eurovan
“One thing that’s really discouraging in Colorado is that the racing scene here is so underground and everything,” Chase said. “You wouldn’t hear [about] this on Channel 9 news or whatever, that sort of thing. It’s just going to be something that you’re going to have to know someone to get in. It’s like a secret club.”
An Opportunity Falls From the Sky
Yet as they sometimes do around VWs, an opportunity at long last fell out of the sky for Chase in 2007, when he was invited to crew on a VW Jetta at Rally Colorado on the Rally America calendar. This also presented the chance to psych up drivers from the sidelines, a habit he carried over from his participation in martial arts—but he wasn’t certain how his energy would be received by this new, wonderful—though overwhelmingly white—world of motorsport.
“There [were] a whole bunch of old white folks,” Chase recalled thinking. “I [hoped I wasn’t] going to piss them off because I [knew] that sometimes people in the car, they’re just imagining the road. They’re getting their zone and everything else. I [hope I wasn’t] ruining their zone.
“And the only thing I had,” he went on, “was this Volkswagen bell that I got from a Volkswagen show back in ’05. I was just like, ‘Aight, let’s do it.'”
Sterling Chase rings his bell at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb
As it turned out, though, the rallyists reacted to his cowbell like Christopher Walken in a certain SNL sketch.
“It was like a complete 180 [from what I expected],” Chase said. “Everybody on the grid was, like, super ecstatic about it. And it was not just for cheering for one individual like my driver, I was cheering for the whole grid and everything else. That just kind of snowballed into what we have nowadays.”
You can see Chase in action in the Instagram video below.
This was a tipping point for Chase, whose signature poof of hair has since been seen at races across Colorado from rallies to hill climb races, Formula Vee, rallycross, and even Pikes Peak, all on top of his full-time work at shops. As long as someone covered his fuel, food, and lodging, he’d be there with his bell and his tools, both to hype up the starting grid and keep his client’s car running right.
There came a point in 2015, though, where a colleague in Formula Vee had to take him aside and remind him that he was a professional—and that his time was worth money.
In Wendell’s Honor
After that, Chase’s company Frohvernügen Race Service Crew was born. It’s under that banner that he has expanded his wrenching horizons. Chase has crewed cars for skater Bucky Lasek, rubbed elbows with Gas Monkey Garage‘s Aaron Kaufman, and has even been commissioned by famed hotfoot Randy Pobst to work on his personal ’86 Mk.2 Golf. They’ve all been inspirations, but some of his biggest have been his fellow Black motorsportsmen—stunt driver Tony “B” Brakohiapa (who drove in Nissan’s 2022 Super Bowl ad), fellow Coloradan Robb Holland, and pioneering stock car driver Wendell Scott, the first Black racer to win in NASCAR’s top division. Scott in particular holds special significance for Chase, who named his ’83 VW Rabbit track car “Wendell” in his honor.
But Scott hasn’t become a takes-all-comers manifestation of Chase’s competitive spirit. With age, he’s found himself less interested in driving competitively and more into being the guy who understands what makes a competitive car, and then providing that.
“I’ve just been building cars and servicing up until the last couple of years,” Chase continued. “I would probably say I’ve done some autocrosses. I haven’t done any rallies, haven’t done any hill climbs. [Just] little tests and tunes. Driven a couple of [Formula] Vees. Just trying to get a basic understanding of what’s going on so that I can be able to translate and be a better builder or crew chief for my drivers and everything.”
That means that in the last couple of years, Chase hasn’t had the chance to attend a rallycross. Instead, much of the last 18 months have been spent developing his Pikes Peak car.
By Pikes Peak car, he means “Gertie,” the red shell of a 2004 VW Golf R32 that sat around for a few years as a parts car. Now, it’s getting a 2.8-liter turbo VR6, its all-wheel drive back, as well as performance parts from connections both new and old. Bilstein is sponsoring a set of PSS9 coilovers, while the Pikes Peak Evo whose preparation we followed in 2017 donated its fuel cell.
Connections are worth their weight in gold in motorsport, and Chase is tapping one of them to get a driver; he has no interest in taking on Pikes Peak himself (at least for the time being). He considers it beyond his skill level as a driver, just as he considers crewing full-time in a professional series to be a gig for younger, spunkier enthusiasts—ones whom he’d rather help find their way into racing in the first place.
“I’m getting to the age [where] I kind of want to be able to start developing a school or something little lower-key,” Chase said. “I just don’t want anybody to deal with the same poo that I dealt with. It took me seven years of, like, poking and digging with folks and everything else in order for me to get into motorsport. And that’s why I’ve always been a huge advocate.
“If there’s a chance for me to be able to be at a car show or a get-together or something like that, that’s not racing-related, so that I can spread the word of racing to folks and all that, or if I have any buddies of color and all that, or whoever, [I’ll] encourage them. just like, ‘Hey, come hang out with me! Come hang out with my crew and everything else. We’ll show you the ropes. We’ll get you basic stuff and everything else to get into racing.'”
Sterling Chase with Rally Ready
Chase knows, just as everyone else does, that getting into motorsports isn’t a cheap endeavor. But it’s not impossible; he said that many organizations are always seeking volunteers, which is a great way to get your foot in the door. “I just want to be able to spread that word to everyone who has any kind of inkling of [interest in] motorsports,” he said.
No Excuse Not To
“I have a feeling that with the internal combustion engine, we are at the golden years,” Chase said. “So, it’s time for us to think about, like, ‘Oh, man, what would it be like to be around the old ’69 Mustang, in the days of Ford versus Ferrari in the ’60s and everything else?’ I feel that we are in that. Embrace it and enjoy as much as we can, because we only got one life to live.”
And while Chase may stand out as one of the few Black people in the world of motorsport, he hasn’t experienced any implicit racial hostility, or even pushback he deemed worth mentioning.
“I mean, there’s nothing really so much,” Chase continued. “There’s a good handful of people that are very empathetic and charismatic. Especially if they see someone kicking butt and working hard, that sort of thing, they’re pretty vocal about like, ‘Hey, I really like your enthusiasm.’
“The heart and the acceptance and everything else is there,” he said.
“What I’m trying to say is that it’s there, people are there. They want people,” Chase went on. “Don’t give yourself excuses because I always feel that a lot of folks would be like, ‘Oh, I’m not really sure, just because it’s a white man’s…’ No. It’s everybody’s sport, just come out and play. We need more friends to be on the track. That’s all.”
Chase’s advice to anyone thinking about jumping in is to be enthusiastic, positive, and to display good work ethic and intuition. Those were the tools that helped him get where he is now. He also emphasized the value of good role models, of people to look up to—from people beyond the automotive world like Tony Robbins to those that inspired him in it, from his father to RWB’s Akira Nakai, Randy Pobst, and of course, Wendell Scott. In Chase’s book, there are few better people to learn about breaking barriers from than one of NASCAR’s most indefatigable drivers.
“The one thing [Scott] always said is, ‘When it’s too tough for everybody else, it’s just right for me,'” Chase said. “That’s what I push upon everybody that I know—or even myself on cars, or when I start thinking like I’m not going to be able to make it. I reassure myself by having that saying, and then overcoming [the challenge].”
Sterling Chase bringing a customer’s VW Eurovan back to life
Sterling Chase rolls a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII to the start line at the 2017 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb
And as long as Sterling Chase can keep the fire burning, he’ll keep his wrench—and all the wheels it touches—turning.
“I’ve been in the automotive industry for the last 20 years, and I’ve seen a good handful of techs that I worked with in the past,” Chase said. “They get to a certain age and they’re like, ‘I’m just done working on cars, I don’t want to deal with cars, I don’t want to be with people,’ and that sort of thing. I never really want to go down that road. I want to flourish as long as possible. I want to be 70 years old, still cranking out on cars, or cranking out the cowbell.”
Sterling Chase’s cowbell arsenal
Sterling Chase can be reached for pre-’06 VW and Audi repairs through his shop Sterling Autowerks in Lakewood, CO, and for pit crewing via Frohvernügen Race Service Crew.
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